News: A letter to Foreign Minister Bob Carr


Dear Mr Carr,

Below is an extract of a letter I received from Margaret McKinnon, AusAID’s First Assistant Director General Africa and Community Programs Division. In it she announces a decision to discontinue the Pilot Volunteer Fund (PVF) without cogent explanation.

“I wish to advise that AusAID will not continue the PVF and therefore will not renew agreement with Palms Australia.

I have reached this decision after consideration of your final report, discussion with you as well as taking into account the objectives and impact of the broader Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program. The Australian Government established the AVID program in MAy 2011 amalgamating four separate volunter programs under one brand, with a unified program goal. The consolidation delivers cost efficiencies, and allows greater numbers of volunteers to be supported. Consolidation also improves program effectiveness through close alignment of assignments with country program development priorities and a unified program identity, operational standards and procedures for volunteers. PVF is a standalone initiative in parallel to the AVID program, which compromises the benefits of a single Australian Government-funded volunteer program.”

Margaret suggests Palms final report influenced the decision. Yet the report highlights outstanding sustainable results of cooperative capacity building with communities engaging Palms volunteers under the PVF. The single discussion involved Margaret myself and the Executive Directors of Youth Challenge Australia and Engineers Without Borders (also funded under the PVF) having an hour to introduce her to similar reports from communities engaging the service of volunteers from each agency. (At the time she had only been overseeing the volunteer program for nine months.)

The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program was not established in May 2011 as Margaret states. That is when it was launched. The objective to amalgamate four agencies under one brand with a unified program goal was clear immediately after the review of the previous iteration of the Australian Volunteer Program in 2009.

The PVF was a 2011 AusAID initiative introduced long after AVID arrangements for consolidation were in place. The PVF was the suggestion of Parliamentary Secretary Bob McMullan who saw the value of diverse offerings in Australian Volunteering. It was always intended to run in parallel with the AVID program, to complement it by allowing for the smaller program to test innovations and have lessons learned available to all without the risk of disruption to the larger program.

It was intended to encourage research and innovation in international volunteering that engaged smaller numbers of volunteers outside of AusAID’s core (AVID) program. Being characterised as a “Pilot” was an afterthought by AusAID and as such we were given to believe that they were looking to refine the process after an independent, comprehensive and rigorous assessment to identify what had been learnt and what might be adjusted before full implementation. The process of evaluation settled on by AusAID, which they worringly claimed to be “In line with current AVID program reporting mechanisms” was not independant as intended and certainly not one that encouraged an effective process of learning, adjustment and improvement to programs.

Perhaps the key lesson learned was one that the government would do well to consider. AusAID’s contribution to mobilising each volunteer through AVID is $60,000 per annum. This figure was given to me by Margaret McKinnon’s predecessor at a meeting with all PVF agencies in November 2011. Palms normally mobilises volunteers at less than half that cost, but under the PVF, with AusAID requirements, we mobilised the 20 volunteers for an average cost to AusAID of under $35,000 per annum.

AusAID’s evaluation processes failed to deliver the learning. There was little opportunity for discussion to add much of value and if concern about consolidation was an issue why would the PVF have been started if it was a possible threat to the benefits of a unified AVID program? We sought consolidation. AusAID did not.

What is most misleading about Margaret’s letter is the statement that AVID delivers cost efficiencies. It may be true at the level of AusAID office operations, however an analysis over several years shows growing costs per volunteer making it nowhere near as cost efficient as the Palms program. I am sure that voters looking for best value for money from international aid would be interested in a reversal of this decision so that the lessons learned through the PVF can indeed be brought to the AVID program.

Yours sincerely,
Roger O’Halloran,
Executive Director

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Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another; it is the only means. - Albert Einstein